"Hot Zone" Rescue

Kevin Johnson discusses some causes of responder collapses at hazmat scenes and techniques involved with rescuing incapacitated responders.


A primary consideration of responders to hazardous materials incidents, as in all emergency operations, is rescue. Evolutions in hazmat team training scenarios typically involve the rescue of victims of an incident but what about the responders who wear chemical protective clothing (CPC) while...


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A primary consideration of responders to hazardous materials incidents, as in all emergency operations, is rescue. Evolutions in hazmat team training scenarios typically involve the rescue of victims of an incident but what about the responders who wear chemical protective clothing (CPC) while operating in the chemical incident "hot zone" and become victims themselves?

Before the rescue of hazmat team members can begin, several questions must be addressed. Is the responder down due to unforeseen hazards, physical injury, cardiovascular compromise, heat stress, chemical contamination or equipment failure? Can the team member be assisted from the accident area or is the assistance of the backup crew necessary? What equipment will be needed to effect the rescue? The hazmat team must evaluate all of these factors.

Causes Of Responder Collapse

Responder health-related causes. A primary cause of collapse while wearing CPC is heat stress, primarily due to the body's inability to adequately dissipate heat while in CPC. Factors include the inability to evaporate sweat from the skin to the humid, stagnant atmosphere inside the CPC; the generation of heat from the responder's muscle exertion; the weight of the CPC; and air warmed by the lungs leaving the exhalation valve on open circuit self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

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Photo by Kevin W. Johnson
A backup team takes a specially designed rescue litter into the "hot zone" to assist in the rescue of a responder who has tripped and injured his lower right leg. He is wearing Level A protective clothing and is unable to walk.

Prevention is key to avoiding heat stress injuries. Pre-hydration of personnel with 13-16 ounces of water before entry is helpful; however, the main consideration is limiting the time of entry.

Cool vests or cooling suits are useful from the standpoint of improving conductive cooling but this comprises only a small percentage of the body's ability to transfer heat. These devices make the time in CPC more tolerable but caution should be exercised in using these devices as a tool to extend the work time of the entry team. The core temperature of the responder will rise in spite of the cooling device, once again due to the humid, stagnant air in the suit not allowing efficient evaporation of sweat from the body. In-suit-air flow systems assist the body's ability to use evaporation as a cooling mechanism but have the inherent disadvantage of increased air consumption, and are normally only considered as practical when utilizing a supplied air source.

The heat stress injury may manifest itself in one or more of the following conditions, listed in increasing order of severity: heat cramps, a brief, intermittent muscular cramping, typically in those muscles which are fatigued by heavy work; heat edema, swelling of the feet and ankles; heat syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness caused basically by the dilatation of blood vessels near the surface of the skin, resulting in reduced available vascular blood volume and a drop in perfusion to the brain, causing an unconscious state; heat exhaustion, which is characterized by weakness, fatigue, impaired judgement, vertigo, nausea and vomiting caused by loss of water or salt; and heat stroke, a failure of the body's thermal regulation systems to meet the demands of the heat stress, with symptoms including weakness, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, vomiting, loss of muscle control and psychiatric symptoms. The onset of heat stress while operating in CPC during hot zone entry could result in the inability of the responder to exit safely to the "warm zone" and the decontamination corridor.

Other causes of responder collapse include trips and falls, a possibility compounded by decreased visibility for wearers of CPC. These falls can result in fractures, blunt traumatic injury to the chest or abdomen, head trauma or other injuries.

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